September 01, 1986

Sorry Truth

State Theatre Company
The Playhouse

As players of Trivial Pursuit well know, Pravda means truth, and in Howard Brenton and David Hare’s play the State Theatre Company reminds us that the Western press is as unlikely as any other to give us the whole Pravda and nothing but the pravda on the things that matter most.

Both Brenton and Hare have enjoyed success as playwrights over the past fifteen years or so and have collaborated previously on a play entitled Brassneck in 1973. But Pravda has done better business in the West End in the last eighteen months than anything either has done before, as well as providing the occasion for a triumphant return to the stage for Antony Hopkins.

The writers have subtitleded their play ‘A Fleet Street Comedy’ but as it swings from ridicule to ripping yarn unable or, more to the point, unwilling to define its position, one starts to suspect it is dealing more with half-pravdas than anything else. The play describes the dastardly exploits of Lambert Le Roux – late of Bloemfontein, you-know-where – who has England with the ink still wet on his British passport. Lambert is shopping for newspapers starting with the innocent Leicester Bystander, and in the process raising shiny-eyed Jimmy Olsen type, Andrew May, up from the ranks to be its editor. From there he sets his sights on the Jekyll and Heckle of the English press – The Victory and The Tide. The former, home of the crossword and the Cabinet -shattering editorial, the latter, a newspeak tabloid primarily concerned with keeping abreast with page three. All this dirty diggery is a touch familiar but it is surprising to find a play by Brenton and Hare that’s half in love with easeful villainy. The audience is encouraged to focus on Le Roux at every point as the satire sprays on every other aspect of English society – the toffs, MP’s, shop stewards, clergy, intellectuals, liberals ,and reformers all get a serve as they whimper ineffectually against the Benthaniite dynamism of Le Roux.

John Wood gives a strong, irascible performance as Le Roux although on first’ night he had not quite found the fulcrum of the character. It is a difficulty, however, because to straddle the entire play as the figure of Le Roux does, emphasis must shift to a fascination with authoritarianism and thus obscure questions that Pravda generally is fudgy about. Insofar as Wood and director John Gaden have been politically scrupulous in preventing Le Roux from being a rascal- for-whom-we-have-grudging-admiration, they have ignored the drift of the play itself and it has lost same of its dramatic force.

The remainder of the characters are variably successful. Armed with Waugh-like names such as Ian Ape-Warren, Lord Ben Silk and Elliot Fruit- Norton, they are often crudely drawn and lightly played. John Doyle, so impressive in Essington Lewis, plays Fruit-Norton, the deposed editor of the Victory, as a loopy Basil Fawlty, ignoring the disturbing fact that a gifted journalist has been ousted by the philistines. Of course, the writers dither . on this point by making the scene where Andrew May, Fruit-Norton and MP Michael Quince scheme against Le Roux sound like the plan to reclaim Toad Hall.

Gaden has again assembled a strong cast – Andrew Tighe is up to par as Andrew May, the editor who discovers that printers’ ink is no match for Media Inc and finds himself washed up in the Tide. Michael O’Neill is nicely ferrety as Le Roux’ henchperson, Eaton Sylvester and locals, Don Barker, memorable as Leander Scroop –” a sort of Taki before taxes “- John Crouch, playing Michael Quince at runcible spoon’s length and Patrick Frost, in from the cold and accomplished as ever, all perform well. Heather Mitchell is valiant as Rebecca, the earnestly principled wife of Andrew May, despite the fact that the part is cliched enough to be more like the work of Burke and Hare than Brenton and Hare.

The production gains from Hugh Colman’s striking but simple sets, aptly lit by John Comeadow, and Julie Lynch’s sort-of-Forties costumes give a disturbing but effective sense of anachronism. Gaden’s direction tends to soften what might have been almost expressionist satire and could be firmer with the more indulgent writing – some of Neil Armfield’s tactics in Dreams in an Empty City might have made Pravda sharper and harsher.

But it is a play that won’t finally declare itself. It warns that you need to get up early to beat the likes of Le Roux but in personalising monopolistic capitalism, Brenton and Hare suggest that it is finally a matter of individual merit and strength of purpose rather than of overhauling rotten legislation and restructuring financial institutions . Le Roux is powerful and destructive because anti-trust laws around the world aren’t worth a toss, not because there is not enough true grit left in the world, and Brenton and Hare reveal a shallow Tory cynicism in not making that plain.

“Sorry Truth”, The Adelaide Review, September 1986, pp.20-21.

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